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Summer succulents and trusty tropicals: In leaves we trust

by timber press on June 7, 2017

in Design, Gardening

Yucca aloifolia ‘Blue Boy’. Photos by the author.

If flowers are obvious, leaves are overt, even if they too often go unnoticed. The modern garden is marked by its understanding that foliage—of all shapes, sizes, colors, and presentations—is the real undercurrent that keeps aesthetics afloat. An excerpt from Plants with Style: A Plantsman’s Choices for a Vibrant, 21st-Century Garden by Kelly D. Norris.

I’m a relative latecomer to tropical plants, perhaps because I was brought up in the Midwest, where the idea of planting big, waxy leaves in the garden seemed foreign beyond my comprehension. More than once my interior monologue went something like this: “If it’s not hardy, throw it back,” a comforting, comfortable thought, suggesting that the pool of plants I cultivated needn’t include those a brutal Iowa winter would crush. I never had much of a knack for tropical houseplants either, much preferring to grow plants in the free outdoors than the ever-too-dry containers of my bedroom and living room. While I liked the idea of living among my plants, I’d just as soon live in the garden outdoors instead.

Alocasia odora ‘Okinawa Silver’.

But nagging botanical curiosities crept up on me. I found that some plants were just essential to satisfying my inquisitiveness—gesneriads, aroids, tropical cactus, agaves, plectranthoids (I made that word up, but you get the idea). And while these were essential, the limitations of climate would otherwise prohibit most northern gardeners from growing them beyond a container, unless you’re fortunate enough to grow agaves in your perennial border in zone 7 and above. Here sets in zonal denial, that horticulturally clinical condition of envying warmer winters, longer summers, and the unspeakable dozens of plants presently beyond your reach. There is no cure, but you needn’t fight it. Some genera work famously as seasonal superstars.

The world of aroids—commonly called elephant ears—has its host of celebrities. As a descriptor of their size, big would be an understatement. Trying to spin out a list of top five favorites is pointless. At some point I realized that I generally didn’t have a negative word to say about any that I encountered. ‘Sarian’ is a personal favorite for its windowpane-veined leaves, which are prisms to a photosynthetic universe. It’s reminiscent of the golden-stemmed Alocasia macrorrhiza ‘Lutea’, though much more subdued than the glowing, banana-yellow petioles that rise from a center crown of the latter like praying hands. It’s borderline reckless to throw a height rating for any of these. As tropicals go, these things have voracious appetites for any strong concentrations of organic matter thrown their way. Feed them, Seymour?

Yucca filamentosa ‘Hairy’.

Another favorite, formerly quite rare, is Alocasia odora ‘Okinawa Silver’, the horticultural world’s version of a Rorschach. No doubt it was one of the temptations that induced my tropical labors—its splashy, sexy variegation and incredible vigor rewarded my every effort. I’ve since shared it with many friends, who’ve shared it again. Like many aroids, plants are heavy feeders—fertilize and they will thrive (perhaps at the expense of your container).

“No doubt it was one of the temptations that induced my tropical labors—its splashy, sexy variegation and incredible vigor rewarded my every effort.”

New breeders and new varieties have added a lot to the market and put a spin on the plants that formerly were valued for their size and personality and less for their individual novelty. If his early introductions are any clue, Kentucky-based plant breeder Brian Williams is well on his way toward royalty status among aroid aficionados. His Alocasia sarawakensis ‘Yucatan Princess’ is both a mouthful and an eyeful. Grand and voluptuous, its soft but not muted colors of gray-green and milk chocolate play well with neighboring plants, while not overpowering the scene (anything more, given its size, might just be too much). In a container by the door, it’s a one-plant garden—at once minimalistic, modish, and stylish. In the Colocasia realm his most successful introduction to date is ‘Noble Gigante’, essentially a black-leaved form of C. gigantea ‘Thai Giant’, the favorite oversized taro. Growing as much as eight feet (or more) during a single growing season, a mammoth clump can stop traffic with an eruption of dramatic color and texture. This brings a whole new meaning to guerilla gardening.

The apple green veins of Alocasia ‘Sarian’ dam up plots of jade green, giving these monumental leaves their wowing appeal.

John Cho’s ‘Black Coral’, a metallic-leaved selection with high shine, is among the best in black colocasias for vibrancy and color. According to Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery, early name suggestions included ‘Exxon Valdez’, a testament to the plant’s crude, sooty, lacquered (the adjectives could run on for pages) black leaves that fill out into a voluminous, three-foot-tall fountain. My go-to variety for container centerpieces because of its more modest size and vigorous growth.

Somewhere between tropical and desertified, yuccas occupy a space in the wild that translates beautifully to the garden. Around fifty species of these woody asparaguses (which is what they are, botanically speaking) call the western hemisphere home, growing from the High Plains (Yucca glauca) to the Caribbean (Y. aloifolia). While their magnificent spires of white bells might charm us for a few weeks a year, it’s the sharp rosettes of foliage that persist, always available as a counterweight to the parade of flowers passing by. Yucca aloifolia ‘Blue Boy’ (sometimes sold as ‘Purpurea’) found me in a nursery near Asheville, North Carolina, several years ago. This zone-8-hardy subtropical sports broad sword-like leaves blushed with purple and blue—an arresting specimen in containers for northern gardeners, or a slow-growing evergreen in mild climates. For the rock garden, forms of Y. glauca, Y. harrimaniae, and Y. filamentosa are desirable. Yucca filamentosa is a Midwestern native, occasionally found around abandoned farm sites, no doubt the fascinating prize of a pioneer gardener who made home beautiful with tough plants like this. A variegated form (‘Variegata’) exists, though it’s rare in cultivation. It’s more polite than non-variegated forms, which can rapidly colonize with thick woody stems, and it flowers just the same. A dwarf, excessively fuzzy clone is sold under the obvious name of ‘Hairy’. At eighteen inches tall in foliage (and reaching up to a few feet in flower), it’s a pip by comparison to its forebearer and couldn’t have better proportion when planted along a sidewalk or path.

In contrast to tropical behemoths, I relish fine-textured leaves as a chef treasures threads of saffron—for so little added to the soup, the flavor improves tenfold. Fine-leaved plants often feature prominently in gardens, whether given full control of the stage as roving, thriving centerpieces or sited as appurtenances to more muscular plants nearby. In either case, in contrast to their surroundings, those filigree leaves tickle the eyes.


norris_kKelly Norris is a horticulturist, plant breeder, and plantsman who lives in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to being the award-winning author of three books, he is the director of horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, a revitalized 14-acre public garden. He and his family also own Rainbow Iris Farm.



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